Vail remembers President Ford | AspenTimes.com

Vail remembers President Ford

Matt Terrell
Vail correspondent

Nancy Steiner, bows her during a prayer for the late president Gerald Ford Saturday during a memorial service at Golden Peak in Vail. Hundreds of locals and visitors gathered to pay their respects to the president. (Preston Utley/Vail Daily)

Aspen, CO Colorado

Former President Gerald Ford first said hello to the Vail Valley nearly 40 years ago on a mountain slope and a pair of skis.

And it was on a mountain slope and a few hundred pairs of skis that the Vail Valley said goodbye to the neighbor, friend, philanthropist, golf enthusiast, powder hound, congressman and president who helped put Vail on the map.

More than 2,500 people gathered at the base of Vail Mountain’s Golden Peak on Saturday evening to honor Ford, who died Tuesday at age 93.

The ceremony began with a bright spotlight on longtime Vail musician Helmut Fricker, who met Ford while performing at the first Jerry Ford Invitational Golf Tournament. Fricker played what he called “a nice mountain melody, a melody from Switzerland” on the alpenhorn.

Soon, more than 500 ski instructors from Vail and Beaver Creek curved down the slopes of Golden Peak single-file with glowing torches, lighting the snow-packed mountain pink as the crowd below held candles.

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Skiing, afterall, is what first brought Gerald and Betty Ford to Vail. Because of the former president’s love of skiing, Vail had a chance to meet the man much of the country didn’t see – the man behind a short but impactful presidency.

Many Vail residents developed close, personal friendships with Ford over the years and spoke of a man who took very seriously his role as a community member, friend and mentor.

“He did an awful lot for this community,” Vail Mayor Rod Slifer said.

The Rev. Brooks Keith, a local Episcopal priest, said he was with the Ford family at a mourning service at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., Friday. He said he gave Betty Ford condolences on behalf of the Vail Valley.

Keith recalled how Ford helped him in what was one of his toughest times as a minister, the first church service after Sept. 11, 2001.

“I didn’t know what to tell them,” Keith said of his congregation. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to tell them, Father Brooks, there’s always hope.'”

Vail residents like to remember Ford as a down-to-earth guy who treated everyone as an equal.

“You would never know he was a former president,” Beaver Creek Chief Operating Officer John Garnsey said in a video montage of locals sharing memories.

Most of the people gathered at Golden Peak didn’t know the president, at least well. Some mentioned sightings at a supermarket, appearances in one of their businesses or a kind handshake at a charity function. Ford didn’t meet everyone, but his long and loving relationship with Vail made people feel warm and cared for.

“I’m very proud of this man and what he did for this community. I wish I could have known him,” said Joel Clancy of Vail. “But you know, I felt like I did know him. Everyone did.”

The ceremony included prayers from local clergy and musical performances. The tribute ended with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” playing over the public-address system.

Vail resident June Leary, teary-eyed and smiling, thought it was appropriate.

“He made Vail a wonderful world,” she said.

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